The Other Elections This Week: Greece

by George_East on May 2, 2012

As well as the local elections in the UK tomorrow and the all-important French presidential elections on Sunday, this weekend also sees parliamentary elections in Greece.   The elections will, after 6 months, mark the end of the technocratic government of Lucas Papademos, that, at the behest of the Germans, replaced the elected government of Georges Papandreou last November, after  the PASOK leader had the temerity to suggest that the austerity package he had negotiated with the EU be put to a referendum.

The Greek elections have not had much publicity in the UK press and certainly have not had as much coverage as they would have  had, had they taken place at the end of last year.  A degree of Southern European-austerity fatigue has sadly crept into the British media, now it does not look like the Euro will collapse in the short term (given the current economic policy trajectory, the longer term survival of the single currency is still, in my view, questionable), a prospect that the right wing press in particular has been salivating over.

However, the Greek elections are important beyond the Hellenic Republic, as they are one of a number of tests for the sustainability of German imposed austerity in the Euro-zone.  The recent collapse of the Dutch government, who had been almost as enthusiastic about austerity as the Germans, together with the prospect of a Francois Hollande victory on Sunday (the polls in France are tightening but he retains a 6-8 point lead in the polls published in the early part of this week), indicate the beginnings of a backlash against the self-defeating austerity measures that are now enshrined in law across Europe in the form of the European Fiscal Compact (you remember, the one that David Cameron claimed to have vetoed).   The Irish referendum on the treaty on 31 May 2012 is another interesting test coming up in the course of this month.

Greece has faced the most brutal consequences of austerity in Europe.  It is now in its fifth straight year of economic contraction, with the economy shrinking by almost 7% in 2011 alone.   Despite the debt restructuring negotiated last year, it remains virtually impossible for Greece to meet its deficit and debt reduction targets, particularly as the austerity measures are radically reducing demand in the economy as well as its already dubious tax base.

The electoral system in Greece is an odd version of proportional representation designed to produce majority governments.  The parliament consists of 300 seats which are distributed proportionately to the vote obtained provided a threshold of 3% of the total votes is reached.  The party with the most votes gets a premium of 50 seats.   Thus even if the first placed party wins say 0.1% more votes than the second placed party,  it will receive a top up of seats worth 18% of the total number of seats available.

Unsurprisingly given the events of the last three years, the principal party of the Centre Left, PASOK, now led by Finance Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, is highly likely to see its vote all but disappear.  In 2009 Papandreou secured 43.9% of the vote.   PASOK has recovered from its absolute nadir in January and February which saw its opinion poll ratings in single figures.  However, on 20 April 2012 (the last date for Opinion Polls this cycle as they are banned in the last two weeks of campaigning under Greek law), PASOK was still languishing in the mid-teens (14-17%), having lost about two thirds of its 2009 vote. Barring major shocks, this will comfortably be its lowest vote since the restoration of democracy in 1974.

The biggest party will almost certainly be the main party of the centre right, New Democracy.  However it has been polling only in the low 20s.   If this proves to be accurate it will be a significant drop from the already very low 28% achieved in 2009 (New Democracy has regularly achieved votes over 40% in the past).   The 50 seat bonus looks very odd in such circumstances.

Behind PASOK and New Democracy come two far left parties.  KKE, the Greek Communists, is polling at between 8-11% as compared to 7.5 % in 2009.  However of far more significance is the progress of Coalition of the Radical Left (an alliance of radical leftist green, anti-war, anti-globalisation and feminist groups).  It was founded in the wake of the Iraq War in 2004 and achieved 4.5% in last elections in 2009. The latest opinion polls suggest that the Coalition of the Radical Left could come third overall with 10-14%.  In finest Life of Brian tradition, the Democratic Left,  split from the Coalition of the Radical Left in 2010, is also polling at 8-9%.  The Democratic Left has been the destination of choice for left-wing PASOK MPs who were unwilling to sign up to the austerity programme of Papandreou and Papademos (6 former PASOK MPs are now amongst its ranks).    Thus if the polling for these three groupings are added together something between quarter and a third of voters may support anti-austerity parties of the radical left.   The Greens also may break into the Greek Parliament for the first time as they are polling 3-4%.

On the anti-austerity right, the newly formed Independent Greeks (formed by anti-austerity members of New Democracy expelled from that party for voting against the Papademos budget) are polling at 8-11%.   On the truly terrifying far right, the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement (complete with swastika style flags and a white power ideology) looks like it will achieve parliamentary representation for the first time, as it is polling at 4-7%.   Golden Dawn has been able to capitalise on the decision by the nationalist and Greek Orthodox right-wing LAOS party, to join the Papademos coalition.  LAOS has seen its support fall from 5.5% in the 2009 election to a mere 3% and it may not therefore obtain any parliamentary representation at all.

The overall position is that the pro-austerity parties (including LAOS – though their rhetoric has been anti-austerity despite being part of the Papademos coalition) look like they will obtain something in the order of 35-45% of the vote.  The anti-austerity parties look like they will poll something in the region of 40-50% of the vote.  Given that the pro-austerity parties include the two parties who have run Greece in alternation since the restoration of democracy and that the anti-austerity parties include anti-democratic fringe parties this represents a seismic shift in Greek politics.   It is an election of potentially massive and somewhat scary significance.  The top up 50 seats for New Democracy may well lead to a crisis in democratic legitimacy if a New Democracy led government on a risibly small percentage of the vote,continues with austerity measures rejected by the majority of voters.

While most of my attention will be on France on Sunday, I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s going on in Athens.

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